Saturday, December 15, 2018

Donato Laraia: From Child Fiddler to Financier

Said to have begun at six years old, Donato Laraia, a poor Italian immigrant boy, earned money for his family by playing the violin on horse-drawn trolleys.   When Laraia died more than 55 years later, he was hailed by the local press as “one of the foremost bankers” of Connecticut.  His obituary also noted his many years as a successful Hartford saloonkeeper.

Donato Antionio Laraia was born on March 23, 1867, in Corleto Perticara, Potenza, Italy, the son of Biagio LaRaia and Brigetta Demna.  As a youngster of five he was brought to the U.S. by his father in 1872, settling in Hartford, Connecticut a year later.  One of the first Italians to come to the city and speaking little English, Biagio found it difficult to find work and feed his family.  Like the child shown here, having demonstrated early musical talent on the violin, Donato went to work playing for pocket change on the Wethersfield trolley route.  The photo below shows a horse car of that very line.

Liraia’s teenage years found him employed on a section gang of the Valley Railroad.  Eventually, as his obituary related:  “His just and complacent disposition brought him to the front as foreman.”  He subsequently left railroading for a factory job at a Hartford foundry.  About the age of 21, Liraia decided on a career change.  He had saved sufficient money from his labors to open a saloon in a building at Front and Morgan Streets, the intersection shown here, located in the heart of Hartford’s Italian district.  Confronted with intense competition, Liraia's “just and complacent disposition” proved to be good qualities for a saloonkeeper and he rapidly succeeded.

The Laraias forged a pathway for large numbers of Italians to immigrate to Hartford early in the 20th Century.  Initially the influx was construction workers recruited to build the Bulkeley Bridge, a major highway span over the Connecticut River.  As the Hartford Courant put it in a 1978 story, the Italians then stayed “to build streets, houses, and the many public works projects that a burgeoning Hartford needed.” Most settled on the East Side in the vicinity of Front and Morgan.  Laraia’s saloon would stay at that location for its entire 30 years, until forced by to shut down by National Prohibition in 1919.

Like many publicans, Laraia also sold liquor at wholesale and retail from his establishment.  Shown here is a gallon jug that he was using to supply his customers, including restaurants and other saloons.  He was receiving whiskey by the barrel from Pennsylvania and Maryland, as well as wine from New York, and decanting the contents into smaller containers for wholesale.  This meant his making friendly customers of other saloonkeepers and liquor dealers.  Over time Front Street was home to as many as 25 saloons, 18% of the Hartford total, and 10% of its liquor stores.  Laraia was well positioned to serve them.

At the same time Laraia was branching out.  With his brother Nicola, he opened a second saloon in New Britain, Connecticut, eighteen miles from Hartford.  During this period, the brothers were listed in city directories as doing business under the French-sounding name of “LeRoy.”  As a result, some descendants have speculated that they changed their names.  If anything, this was a short-lived gambit and they soon reverted to Laraia.  Donato subsequently let Nicola run the New Britain saloon by himself and the younger brother issued his own whiskey jug.

Among Laraia’s customers for his liquor and wine likely was his future father-in-law, Frank D. Nezzo, known within the Italian community as the “mayor” because of his willingness to intervene with government authorities on their behalf.  Nezzo also ran an unlicensed drinking establishment at 82 Morgan Street that often brought him in conflict with authorities, who charged him with “keeping liquor with intent to sell and keeping a place…having a reputation where liquors are sold.

Hauled into police court by a sheriff after a raid in which two barrels of claret were discovered in the cellar and a bottle of wine and glasses were found behind a counter, Nezzo explained in court why he had so much wine around:  “I used to drink much beer years ago and by and by I had a big belly….Now I drink wine and I have no belly and I feel much better.”  The judge bought his story, discounted the notion that his place had “a bad reputation,” and acquitted him.

On Thanksgiving Day about the year 1895, circa the age of 28, Donato married Nezzo’s daughter, Lucy, a woman at least a decade younger.  They would have three children, Brighetta, born in 1896;  Laura, 1899, and Francis Biaggio, 1905.  The couple is shown here on passport photos from 1923.  Despite their age difference, Laraia had made a wise choice.  Not only did Lucy have a penchant for business, but moreover when her father, “Mayor” Nezzo,died, Laraia inherited his private banking business.  Although Donato had been running a steamship ticket agency from his saloon, he was a novice in the banking business.  With Lucy’s help, however, he enlarged and successfully carried on his father-in-law’s financial house.  

Laraia’s banking clients were reported to include many Italian and other immigrant residents of Hartford’s East Side as well as “great numbers” throughout Connecticut. Continuing success meant a move in 1910 to larger quarters at Charles and Morgan Street.  In his obituary, the Courant opined that Laraia regarded his business as a sacred trust.  As a result when offered a chance to invest in speculative automobile stocks, he wisely had declined:  “Should I venture the savings which my clients have entrusted to me?”

Laraia also was known for community activities.  He was appointed a street commissioner and served for three years, known for his battle to retain the building line on Washington Street, shown below, in order to preserve its wooded vistas.  His own spacious home on West Raymond Street, shown below, was itself heavily treed.  Laraia was the first president of the Young Italian-American Association and a member of several fraternal groups, including the Redmen, Foresters of America, Eagles, Elks and the City Club.

With friends, the saloonkeeper/banker purchased twenty-five wooded acres fronting on an eight acre pond in the Silver Lane district of East Hartford.  There they built a cottage where he and close associates could gather, share a meal, drink, talk and play cards.  At the age of 61, during such an social evening in August 1828, Donato complained of feeling ill.  Alarmed, his friends placed him in a car to take him home, but he died of heart failure along the way.  

Laraia’s wake was held at his home as his wife, three grown children, a foster child, and two brothers looked on.  The funeral was at his parish church, St. Anthony’s, with burial at St. Benedict’s Cemetery.   Shown here is the impressive Liraia monument, adjacent to his gravestone.  His obituary in the Hartford Courant reminded readers that the saloonkeeper as a child had played the violin on a city trolley, headlining: “Laraia’s Life Tale of Rise Against Odds.  Indeed so!

Note:  The principal source of information about Donato Laraia for this post was his obituary in the August 11, 1828, Hartford Courant.

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